Bianca Alva remembers the day she learned about an Archdiocese of Milwaukee scholarship that helped her achieve her dream of becoming a teacher at a bilingual school for the upcoming school year.

Her family planned to attend Mass that Sunday in 2021 at their long-time parish, St. Francis of Assisi, but she was not motivated to go.

“I ended up going and that literally changed my whole mood,” Alva, 22, Milwaukee, recalled.

In visiting after Mass with the pastor, Fr. Mike Bertram, O.F.M. Cap., Alva shared her stress about paying for school. A Mount Mary University scholarship covered 85 percent of costs and she was applying for other scholarships to cover the balance. Her parents, who had not been able to pursue higher education, offered financial support, but she told them she did not want them to take on that burden.

Fr. Bertram suggested she apply to the Tolton Catholic Scholars for help.

Jon and Libby Baranko worked with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to establish the Tolton Scholars in 2021 to help active Catholics of all ages in local urban parishes who might struggle to bridge the gap when other funding does not pay all postsecondary school costs.

This need must be paired with the endorsement by a pastor familiar with the applicant from their Mass attendance and other parish involvement. Tolton Catholic Scholars is intended to assist members of urban Milwaukee parishes, including All Saints, Blessed Savior, Congregation of the Great Spirit, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Martin de Porres, St. Michael and St. Rose.

“The concept is ultimately to empower pastors to identify people in their parishes — active Catholics who may need financial assistance. It’s a resource that’s available to pastors to help advance education in their parish and create upward mobility in their parish,” Jon Baranko said.

To this point, the Barankos, members of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, have funded the Tolton Catholic Scholars grants. Familiar with the archdiocese’s infrastructure and goals from past involvement with fundraising, they were initially motivated to act following the impact that the coronavirus pandemic had on urban parishes.

The scholars program, overseen by a committee created by the archdiocese, has assisted about 14 students per semester with grants of $2,500 to $5,000. So far, 26 people attending 15 different post-high school institutions have benefited, with many receiving help for more than one semester.

A primary goal of the Tolton Catholic Scholars is to nurture the faith lives of people who are already active Catholics in the hopes that they will become leaders in their urban parishes. Each scholar must attend one formation session with their fellow scholars each semester in addition to continuing involvement at their parish.

The archdiocese committee is now encouraging others to contribute to the Tolton Catholic Scholars, which is overseen administratively by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Social Justice Ministry.

“It’s the right time to open it up to other donors. We have the ability to help more parishes and more people. I would like to see a day where even 100 students could benefit,” Baranko said.

As an active Catholic with financial need who would clearly receive the endorsement from her pastor, Alva was a great fit for help from the fund. She continued as one of the Tolton Scholars for three or four semesters. Students awarded may reapply every semester until they complete their education.

Though she was born in the United States, Alva only spoke Spanish when she began attending school.

“I was put in a bilingual class and English was very hard to learn,” she said. One reading specialist teacher made all the difference, Alva said.

“She is the reason I know English,” Alva said. “She showed me compassion and was patient with me. I want to have that same influence on someone else.”

Philosophy classes at Mount Mary, the first Catholic school Alva had ever attended, helped her think about her career in a faith context.

“It really reassured me that what I was doing was my calling,” Alva said. “My big thing is making an impact in my community and on kids’ lives.” Her new classroom teaching position at Fratney School, or La Escuela Fratney, will help her do just that.

At 22, Alva is the age of a traditional student, but the Tolton Scholars has benefited people ages 18 into their 50s. Some have come from the same family. “There is not a typical student,” Baranko said. Past Tolton scholars have included students at local two-year and four-year colleges starting or completing degrees in areas such as nursing, including certified nursing assistants (CNA); accounting, music, religious studies, engineering, justice, pre-law, biomedical science and renewable energy certification.

Baranko said about 80 percent of recipients are from the Black community.

The Tolton Catholic Scholars is named for and inspired by Fr. Augustus Tolton, who overcame numerous challenges — birth into slavery, his father’s death, poverty and a lack of access to education — to become the first African-American priest.

Fr. Tolton ministered on the south side of Chicago until his death at age 43 in 1897. His path to sainthood was opened by the Church in 2010, and he was declared venerable, the first stage of canonization, in 2019.

“I think his story is a great testament. He had to work through adversity and overcome challenges,” Baranko said. “I think many of our students face those same challenges.”

To donate to the scholars’ fund online or apply, go to Donors may also mail a check to Archdiocese of Milwaukee, c/o Kim Kasten, P.O. Box 070912, Milwaukee, WI 53207. Make the check out to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and write Tolton Catholic Scholars in the memo line.

Bianca Alva, a member of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee, graduated from Mount Mary University in May with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with the help of the Tolton Catholic Scholars program of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Alva is shown with her parents, Manuel and Maria S. Alva. (Submitted photo).